Blasts from the Past: U. S. A. by John Dos Passos (1930-36)

Cover image This is the latest in a series of occasional posts featuring books I read years ago about which I was wildly enthusiastic at the time, wanting to press a copy into as many hands as I could.

I read U.S.A. not just years but decades ago. Both huge and experimental, it took me months to get through but left a deep impression. Made up of three novels – The 42nd Parallel, 1919 and The Big Money – it’s a book that defies summary although I’ve always thought of it as the story of early twentieth-century America.

The three novels follow a set of characters from the early days of the new century. Some of the characters intersect and overlap but not all. There are several distinct narrative styles, from stream of consciousness to reportage to biographies of historical figures. This may sound horribly unwieldy, and it’s far from an easy read, but I remember being both gripped and fascinated by this book. After all these years the details escape me but a quick look at its Wikipedia entry will give you an idea as to whether this is a reading project for you or not. I’ve been toying with the idea of rereading it for years, particularly when I visited the picturesque Madeiran town of Ponta do Sol and found a plaque proclaiming it to be the home of Dos Passos’ ancestors. So proud are the Madeirans of their literary connection that there’s cultural centre honouring the great man.

What about you, any blasts from the past you’d like to share?

10 thoughts on “Blasts from the Past: U. S. A. by John Dos Passos (1930-36)”

  1. Not heavy hitters like dos Passos but 50’s American novels The best of Everything by Rona Jaffa and The Dud Avocado by Elaine Dundy remain eminently readable.

  2. I’ve always been really intimidated by this book although it does sound incredible. You’ve encouraged me to be braver at some point (but not now when my brain definitely isn’t up to it!)

  3. I don’t think I have ever heard of this before. The different narrative styles do sound a bit challenging but also strangely appeal. The whole thing certainly sounds like a fascinating work. Maybe one for a future project.

  4. I haven’t read this but have just reread Bobbin’ Up by Dorothy Hewett, a gritty novel of the lives of a group of women who work for very low wages in a woollen mill in Sydney in the 1950s. It did not disappoint this second reading. Sadly it was Dorothy Hewett’s only novel.

    1. That would tie in neatly with some of the themes about exploitation of labour in U. S. A. Probably not available here in the UK but I might be able to pick up a seconhand copy online. Thanks for the recommendation.

  5. buriedinprint

    I was wishing that I had had a copy of this on loan from the library before the libraries were closed (I borrowed it for one of the Club events, the first volume being from 1930, but couldn’t finish it before it was recalled, being in such strangely high demand!) Can you ever imagine rereading it?

    1. Delighted to hear there was such a demand for it but it’s a shame you weren’t able to bag it before the libraries closed. I’ve toyed with the idea of a reread but I’m not convinced I’ll get around to it.

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